Jeremy Corbyn was under fire last night after he suggested British forces on Nato duty in Eastern Europe are ‘escalating tensions’ with Russia.
His spokesman said the Labour leader did not support the deployment of hundreds of UK troops to deter aggression by President Putin and implied that a future Labour government might not come to the aid of a Nato ally if it were attacked by Russia.
But his remarks appear to have caused yet more infighting with the Labour party, with Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith ‘absolutely furious’, according to senior sources.
Jeremy Corbyn, pictured in the Commons today, believes Britain should consider ending troop deployments and RAF flights in eastern Europe to ‘ratchet down’ tensions with Vladimir Putin
Just hours previously she had jetted out to Estonia to give an interview for Forces TV to visit the 800 troops sent out to Estonia as part of a Nato taskforce.
And in her interview, she appeared to hold a contradictory view to that of her party leader and close ally.
She said: ‘I think it’s very, very, important that we now play a very strong role in Nato, particularly as we are leaving the European union.
‘I think it’s very important for Nato to be absolutely clear, following what has happened in Ukraine, that we are standing together as Nato nations and there is no way that we would tolerate any attack on any one of our member states.’
But his remarks appear to have caused yet more infighting with the Labour party, with Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith ‘absolutely furious’, according to senior sources
Article 5 of the Nato treaty commits members to collective defence. But Mr Corbyn’s spokesman said: ‘It doesn’t define what that response should be… that can be a whole range of things.’
Asked specifically whether Mr Corbyn supported the Government’s decision to send 800 troops to Estonia as part of a Nato task force, he said: ‘Jeremy has expressed concerns about that being one of the escalations of tensions that have taken place.’
The comments prompted fury among Labour MPs and led to fresh questions about Mr Corbyn’s fitness for office. Sources close to defence spokesman Nia Griffith told the Daily Mirror she was ‘absolutely livid’ over the suggestion that Labour did not support Nato’s policy of collective defence.
Michael Dugher, a former Labour frontbencher, described the intervention as an ‘own goal’ which had sabotaged Mr Corbyn’s efforts to hold the Government to account over the NHS.
Mr Dugher said Mr Corbyn’s team appeared to be ‘continuing to fight the Cold War – for the wrong side’.
Former Labour defence minister Kevan Jones said the comments undermined support for British troops.
‘Anyone in our Armed Forces is going to take a pretty dim view of being undermined in this way while they are protecting the security of Europe,’ he said. ‘The idea that being part of Nato escalates tensions is completely wrong – collective defence through Nato is vital.’
Theresa May, seen leaving No 10 today, said at the weekend Britain stood ready to defend Estonia and other Nato allies were Russia to invade
Mike Gapes, a Labour member of the Commons foreign affairs committee, pointed out that Labour had always backed Nato, adding: ‘Collective defence is absolutely essential for all members.’
Tory MP Bob Stewart, an ex- Army colonel, said: ‘Jeremy Corbyn barks at the moon when he starts talking about defence.’
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said Mr Corbyn was wrong, adding: ‘Nato is not seeking confrontation with Russia. We would like to pursue a relationship of co-operation with Russia, but we are also going to make sure we are standing up for our allies within Nato.’
Asked if that meant not sending British troops to join the NATO mission in the spring, the spokesman added: ‘Jeremy has expressed concerns about that, about that being one of the escalations of tensions that have taken place.’
Asked if RAF Typhoons should be withdrawn from an air policing operation, the spokesman said: ‘Jeremy has made the case we need to address the relationship with Russia, which has tensions on both sides.
‘It is crucial that not be used to ratchet up tensions but the basis for serious engagement to reduce tensions.
‘We want talks and engagement to wind down tensions, military tensions, particularly on the Nato-Russian border.’
‘That’s not a question of being in any way uncritical. There is many issues he has raised on condemned in relation to Russia’s role but there clearly needs to be a ratcheting down of tensions between the West and Russia.
British Typhoon jets (pictured at RAF Akrotiri) routinely patrol the skies of eastern Europe while the Army is sending troops and tanks to Estonia alongside forces from Denmark and France
‘There are dangers involved in that military escalation particularly on the Nato-Russia border and, of course, in the Middle East where there is a full scale war going on.
‘We want to see engagement and negotiation to wind down those military tensions.’
Asked if Britain should go to the defence of Nato-ally Estonia if Russia invades he said: ‘Article 5 means if there is an attack on another Nato state, there has to be a response.
‘It doesn’t define what that response should be. From the wording of the treaty, that can be a whole range of different things.
‘What we are looking for is a reduction in tension.’
The air policing operation, partly operated by RAF Typhoons, pictured, was increased in response to Russian aggression
In April, Britain is sending tanks, drones and 800 troops to Estonia as part of the biggest military build-up on Russia’s borders since the Cold War.
The soldiers will be sent to the Eastern European country and will be joined by forces from Denmark and France, according to Defence Secretary Michael Fallon.
The operation, planned with outgoing US President Barack Obama, was designed with US hopes for binding commitments from Europe to fill four battle groups of some 4,000 troops.
It is part of NATO’s response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and concern it could try a similar tactic in Europe’s ex-Soviet states.
France, Denmark, Italy and other allies are expected to join the four battle groups led by the United States, Germany, Britain and Canada to go to Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, with forces ranging from armoured infantry to drones.
Fears are high after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to occupy the Crimea peninsula in 2014 and Russian-backed forces invaded Ukraine, which is not a Nato member
Speaking on Sunday, Mrs May said British troops would also take part in military exercises in Estonia designed to highlight the ‘seriousness with which Nato considers its responsibilities’.
She told Sky News: ‘Article 5 of Nato says that we do go to the support of any Nato country that has military action against it.
‘Sometimes people think there is going to be a change in the American approach to Nato. From the conversations I’ve had, I think America remains fully committed to Nato, as we do.
‘We’re already taking some steps to show the seriousness with which Nato considers its responsibilities. There will be UK troops on exercise in Estonia this year.’